After 9/11, Suddenly Suspect

By Carolyn See,
who may be reached at www.carolynsee.com
Friday, February 2, 2007

ONCE IN A PROMISED LAND

By Laila Halaby

Beacon. 338 pp. $23.95

Sometimes you run out of adjectives. Or the adjectives lose their luster. What if I say that "Once in a Promised Land" is brilliant, insightful, heartbreaking, enchanting -- what does that even mean anymore? But this novel is brilliant because the prose glows, sends off heat. Insightful because it allows us to see into a place that most of us don't know about. Heartbreaking because you can feel the situation that these characters are trapped in. And enchanting because it's told in the form of a fairy tale that lets us believe that, somehow, these poor souls may be able to rescue themselves.

This is a post-9/11 narrative, and if, as our president has stated, you're either for us or against us, the star-crossed couple here may at first appear to be on the "against" side. But the author asks us to put aside all notions of "terrorists, veils, oil . . . billionaires, bombers, and belly-dancers . . . turbans, burqas, or violent culture." This is a story about an ordinary couple living in Albuquerque who happen to have come to this country some years ago from Jordan. The husband, Jassim, has a PhD in water management; his only passion is the love of water and how it moves. Although he's well-to-do and seemingly safe and well-liked, he's anxious in America. He relies on routine, particularly early morning swims, to keep himself calm. He's cautious and wants nothing more than a peaceful life.

His wife, Salwa, is also well-educated (in fact, she met Jassim back in Jordan by attending one of his lectures when she was a student). But someone who didn't like Salwa might describe her as a piece of work. By one of those coincidences that happen in life and in novels, Salwa was born in America and spent a sliver of her baby-life here before her family went home to Jordan. Maybe it's that American birth that makes her just a little bit mindless and a little bit materialistic, a little bit unable to see anything beyond the end of her own nose.

The people who know Salwa love her, put up with her. They register the fact that she leaves the air-conditioning on when she leaves the house, that she buys stacks of silk pajamas because of the luxurious look and feel of them, that she stays in the shower too long and wastes hot water. She's self-centered, sure, but she's harmless. And if it turns out that she married Jassim partly to get out of Jordan and come to the United States, well, what's wrong with that?

Salwa and Jassim are civil and affectionate with each other. They love each other. But there's no denying that even in this American promised land, they're out of their element. They're making lots of money -- besides Jassim's job as a hydro-engineer, Salwa works at a bank and has just earned her Realtor's license -- but they're shrouded in terrible loneliness. Maybe that's why Salwa wants a child, someone to keep her company, and why Jassim doesn't; he needs to keep things as simple and uncomplicated as possible in this still-foreign country.

When the towers fall in New York, these people are as stunned and appalled as everyone else, but at first they don't think that the terrible event has much to do with them. Then, when a Sikh gas station attendant in Phoenix is killed " in retaliation," they get scared. "People are stupid," Salwa says, " Stupid and macho. . . . throwing their weight around if something happens that they don't like. Only it doesn't matter to them if they get the people who did whatever it is that they are angry about, just as long as they've done something large and loud." Add to that the fact that rational societies are only as rational as their craziest citizen, and the news for this couple isn't good.

Jassim, as he goes swimming before dawn, is chatted up by a stranger, a guy with a buzz cut, who seems to know a lot about him already. A couple of secretaries at work seem to be gossiping about him, giving him dirty looks. Is he just imagining things? At the bank where Salwa works, a college boy begins flirting with her in an inappropriate way. But Jassim and Salwa can't -- or won't -- talk to each other about these things. Salwa gets pregnant on purpose, then miscarries. She never gets around to telling Jassim anything about it because he never wanted children anyway. Jassim (by far the more intelligent of the two) is involved in a deadly car accident. He just can't bring himself to tell his wife.

And, of course, if you're out in Arizona and have Middle Eastern features and a Middle Eastern name and work around the municipal water supply, the government will have to investigate you. My God, they'd better! What about those men who went to flying school and nobody noticed it until it was too late? What about those talking heads on television telling all of us to be vigilant, all the time?

Neither Jassim nor Salwa is innocent. Both of them have flaws, but those flaws are personal. The tragedy that sweeps them up is personal, too, but fanned by flames of national rage and paranoia. Laila Halaby has captured the human condition perfectly here, but my God, it's a horrid condition.


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